By Ray Freedman
The spirit of Thanksgiving lies in family. While there are many films centered around turkeys and dysfunctional families begrudgingly spending time together, the better Thanksgiving film is one about genuinely searching for familial connection. Weird, amusing and striking, these are a few unsung films which capture that yearning with unique perspective that isn’t often seen in “family” films. Late fall breeds deep feelings for many, and these films will leave you yearning for connection before winter sets in.
“Taking Off” is a film from 1971 directed by Miloš Forman. Before making “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Forman directed this oddball portrait of domestic American life. The film revolves around a family whose daughter has run away from home. Although driven by this narrative spine, the bulk of the film invests in unconventional extended sequences which make it more an absurd time capsule. One such sequence involves a simple high school theater try out, wherein Forman delights in taking the time to show you 20 to 30 students awkwardly singing and dancing. There is another scene of the central father figure running through a park looking for his daughter — all scored by horrifying classical music while you watch the strangers around him. The film is most famous for its 10-minute montage of middle-aged parents trying weed for the first time so they can “understand their children.” Sometimes the best film viewing experience is when you know you’re witnessing the director having fun.
A little bit less silly, and perhaps director Jim Jarmusch’s most earnest film, “Broken Flowers” stars Bill Murray as an aging loner named Don Johnston. Upon receiving an anonymous letter saying he has a son, he embarks on a journey to find him. Flying from city to city and ex to ex, Don is searching for any information he can find. Throughout the film, he realizes his journey is driven by his own loneliness and lack of real connection. Murray is subtle and stoic in the role, and his encounters are quirky — almost comical — quiet and deadpan. It’s quintessential Jarmusch, whose stories are calm but pervasive. The film’s final shot stayed in my mind for many weeks after I had first seen it.
Similarly, “Powwow Highway” is just the kind of film that stays in your head. Produced by George Harrison, and with no major Hollywood studio backing it, the film was critically acclaimed but a difficult sell when it came out. Since its release in 1989, the film has been mostly forgotten. This is a shame because it features one of the best performances from a legendary actor: Gary Farmer stars as Philbert, a Cheyenne man from Montana who sees sacred visions. He is obsessed with finding out things about the Cheyenne warriors from the old times, but finds little guidance in his community. Having no money, he trades marijuana for his “pony”: a broken-down car. When he hears his friend must go to Santa Fe to free his wrongly imprisoned sister, the two ride south. Farmer is funny, foolish and heartbreakingly honest as Philbert. It’s a story of reconnecting with one’s heritage, family and land.